The High Cost of Being Hopeless with Math

“I don’t do math—numbers give me a rash.” That’s a line I’ve used a lot, mostly because it’s true, but also because it gets me a laugh.

Truth be told, most of us stink when it comes to doing the math on the fly. That’s a problem because being hopeless with math makes us putty in the hands of retailers.

Why is it socially acceptable to say that we’re bad at math, but not to say we’re bad at reading? The truth is that it’s not okay to be hopeless with numbers. Here are three ways that our aversion to math costs us money:

The number 9. Amazingly, 65 percent of all retail prices end in the number 9. Unconsciously, we’re charmed into believing the item is a bargain.

Whenever you see a product priced at $29.99 or $9.99, the retailer is attempting to “charm” your brain by marking prices just below a round number. Because our brains are trained to read from left to right, the first digit is the one that sticks in our head and the number we use to decide if the “price is right.”

Both Steve Jobs, who came up with the 99-cent app, and the guy in California who founded the 99-Cents Only stores have made millions off this human quirk. Retailers use 9 on purpose to lure us into buying something because they know we’ll assume it’s been discounted.

This phenomenon is known as the left-digit effect and studies have shown that it absolutely works and has a big impact on our buying decisions. So whenever you see a price ending with a .99, get in the habit of rounding up, then decide if it’s a good deal.

The good news is that simply being aware of the ways that retailers use the number 9 can break their spell over us. Whenever you see a price ending with a 9, stop and think about what’s going on.

Intentional confusion. It’s a trick retailers use all the time: A confused customer is more likely to opt for the higher price deal. An item marked 5/$4 prompts us to buy five items for $4, not 1 item for $.80, because it’s too confusing.

Which is the better deal: 33 percent off the regular price or 33 percent more product for the same price? Studies show that most people go for the 33-percent more deal because they don’t know how to do the math and they simply guess. And they’re wrong.

Thirty-three percent off is the same as a 50-percent increase in the quantity. Let me show you: If the regular price is $1 for 3 pounds, 33-percent off means you get 3 pounds for $.66 or $.22 per pound. If you opt for 33 percent more, you’ll get 4 pounds for $1 or $.25 per pound. The secret is to figure out the per unit price—per ounce, per quart, per pound. Now it’s easy to compare.

Price ignorance. In his book Priceless, author William Poundstone tells the story of the retailer Williams-Sonoma and a $279 bread maker. Sales were lagging so they placed a nearly identical machine next to the $279 bread maker with a price tag of $429. Immediately, sales doubled on the $279 model because it appeared to be 40 percent cheaper, and therefore a great deal. The same tactic is in play when you see a big display in the supermarket with a sign that reads, “Special!” If you are not up on your prices, you’ll fall for every trick retailers have up their sleeves to get us to spend more money.

Getting good with math, I’m discovering, starts with my attitude. That’s why I am never again going to tell myself or anyone else that I’m bad with math. I’m doing brain calisthenics. And while forcing myself to figure out per unit prices on the fly is a good exercise, I’m also learning that a pocket calculator is my friend.

How are you with math? Let’s discuss in the comments section below.

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  • Sharon Madison

    Loved this column! You are so right! Retail sales and marketing strategies manipulate our minds even more than you’d even imagine. I’ve always found this to be fascinating. Just a few examples to add:

    Malls do not have clocks in easily visible. That’s so you’ll stay as long as possible. when a mile is built, you can very rarely see the end of a hallway, they are broken up so that there are trees and skylights and nooks and crannies so that you won’t look down the hallway and decide anything is too far away.

    In stores like Macy’s or Sears, there will be carpeting and soft lighting, and absolutely no shopping carts. If you’re going someplace like a more upscale store, it’s assumed that you are there for an enjoyable experience, and not necessarily for bargain-hunting. All the new things will be at the front of the store, and all the bargains will be in the back if you are looking for bargains.

    Warehouse stores, on the other hand,
    are very low maintenance, with concrete floors and ductwork visible overhead, so you’ll know that they’re saving all kinds of money on entertaining you, because you are there for the bargains. Shopping carts are to make it easy for you to carry around all the items without thinking about how heavy they are.

    And these are just a few examples that anybody can think about in realize are true. It’s up to us to be better consumers.

  • Anne

    I find it maddening that different TP and tissue brands use different size packages. I’m sure that’s so you can’t easily compare prices, but that doesn’t stop me! I pull out a calculator and figure out the price per ounce/pound/roll, whatever it is I’m looking for. I do this both in stores and when shopping online.

  • Rich Rorex

    This is amplified in the tale of a grocer who placed some cans of vegetables on a display with the sign saying “2 for 25 cents” and a sign saying “10 cents each” om the display. When the cashier would ring them up for ten cents each many of the shoppers would complain that they were two for twenty-five cents. Explaining the math made the day for the cashier.

  • Patricia Stariha Roy

    Love this column,,,,should be “buyer beware”.
    When our daughter was younger, I hated taking her to the grocery store. Always asking for the horrible sugary cereals, candy, etc. If you have kids, we have all been there. Until I made a game for her. She asked me if we could get Oreos. Now I had planned to get cookies anyway, but they certainly are not a necessity. So here is what I cam up with. I told her sure, but she had to figure out which package was the best deal. If she was correct, we would buy them, if not, nope. The first time she didn’t think about it…she just grabbed the super-size package and brought it to the cart. But when we analyzed the cost per cookie, it was quite a bit more. She was shocked. And we did not get the cookies. We did that all the time, and at one point she asked if she could use a calculator, and started bringing it to the store with us. YES!!!
    She learned 2 great lessons.
    First, a bigger package is NOT necessarily the best deal,
    AND second, that it pays to be able to do math on the fly. How many times do you hear kids say “I’ll never use this algebra”? Well, if their week being with or without cookies depends on it, they find it useful real quickly.
    I can’t tell you how often she has thanked me for making her do these kinds of exercises as she was growing up. She knows she is often way ahead of her peers because of the skills we learned in the grocery store, and incidentally, she was her high school valedictorian, and an elementary school principal at 34.

  • tinydogpries

    I had no idea that ANYONE didn’t automatically round up when they saw a price ending in .99. I round up anything that doesn’t end in .00. I have also learned to look for the shelf tags that quite often give you the price per oz., lb., etc. I have to laugh when I am buying just a few items and I get to the register and hand the cashier the exact amount of the total without having to hunt for the money because I had it figured up before I got to the register. And no, I don’t ever use a calculator. I HATE calculators. I was not good at math in school, but after working in factories for most of my working life I became VERY good at doing figures mentally.

    • crabbyoldlady

      I became good at retail pricing when I worked at Target.

  • crabbyoldlady

    I am good at retail mental math, having worked at Target. However, with today’s smart phones with a built in calculator, there is no reason for anyone to wonder what the price of an item really is.

  • LB Girl

    There is a calculator built into your iPhone. I use it all the time!
    You can also google a quantity comparison tool for comparing liters to ounces, etc.

  • Maggie Graham

    1 – are there still people who don’t round up from .99?
    2 – even ‘stupid phones’ have a calculator, although you may need to search for it; there is a solar-powered calculator that lives next to my wallet.
    3 – are there still people who shop without a carefully-worked-out list?

  • Robin Phillips

    Knowing math when the other person doesn’t , works in your favor. Recently I had to replace my central air unit. After lacks of response from companies I found a company willing to do it in the middle of a heat wave. I was quoted a price 0f almost $5,000 which I thought was high but couldn’t compare since other companies never got back to me. I asked technician if he was the company that offerd %10 off(I had called so many). He said yeah, OK and agreed to 10% off. He said”so that will be $4950. I corrected him and said “no, price is %4500”. DSince he had agreed to it, he honored it. Shows you how much of a makup he quoted.

  • Ruth Rougeux,

    Math gives you a rash math gets me to tears. Just like the above problem I don’t get it. I try really hard. My 3rd grade teacher saw my bad math and it has followed me but I try to carry on. I even took an adult math class offered by our CIU and it was bad but there have been changes in math symbols etc. and we aren’t aware. There is this woman @ church that loves math I don’t get that either. She is a cool women in spite. I do rely on people and their trust and honesty. God Bless you! Olanta PA